Director: Federico D’Alessandro
Writer: Noga Landau
Producer: David S. Goyer, Kevin Turen, Russell Ackerman, John Schoenfelder
Stars: Maika Monroe, Ed Skrein, Gary Oldman
Abducted by a reclusive computer scientist, a captive woman struggles to escape a smart house controlled by an adaptive A.I.
Virtually every preview headline sold the same summary. Netflix’s “Tau” was to feature Maika Monroe of “The Guest” (review here) and “It Follows” (review here) battling to escape a sinister smart house with a HAL-like A.I. voiced by Gary Oldman.
Despite the familiar Netflix bah-bong and verified presence of Monroe, for nearly nine minutes I vaguely wondered if I had pressed Play on the wrong movie, since that setup wasn’t within sight. “Tau” opens with Monroe’s red-wigged Julia pickpocketing her way through a dance club lit like a set from “Batman Forever.” After pilfering her haul at a pawnshop staffed by a fur-clad woman and transvestite eating Chinese food, Julia returns home to her loft, where a neon light outside her window audibly clicks with each alternation between bright red and buzzing blue. Is this shaping into a survival thriller or Poor Man’s noir funneled through “The Fifth Element?”
“Tau” subsequently trades on-the-nose garishness for a turn in a “Saw” meets “The Human Centipede” urban dungeon. Abducted by a mystery man later revealed to be weirdo computer scientist Alex, Julia wakens in a part-sleek, part-scary laboratory alongside two other captives with glowing implants in the backs of their necks. Techno tricks come into play as tests are run, brainwaves are scanned, and electronic apparatuses twinkle.
An escape attempt around the 15-minute mark finally takes the terrorized trio upstairs to reveal they are indeed in a house. Triggering an alarm also triggers Tau, Alex’s visionary artificial intelligence, in killer robot form. The machine lives up to its adjective by dispatching the other two prisoners and recapturing Julia. Julia now finds herself held hostage by her kidnapper as well as his sentient computer program, both of whom Julia has to outsmart to escape.
If we want to be blunt with quick criticism, “Tau” never comes to temperature due to lethargically embodied characters and a yawning pace reflecting their dulled pulses. If we want to break things down with a brow raised over a quizzical eye, “Tau” appears unhealthily interested in fetishizing Maika Monroe by reducing the story to scenarios where she is provocatively dressed or suggestively subjugated.
For her introduction, Julia gets poured into skintight leather, strutting in high heels with the seductive confidence of a “Blade Runner” (review here) pleasure replicant. Relaxing at home after, Julia sports anachronistic dolphin shorts whose slits run up to her waist. Her starting captivity wardrobe consists of a latex mouth muzzle, traded later for a more traditional cloth gag tied through her teeth.
“Tau” contains not one, but two shots of a damp Julia/Monroe wearing only a towel following a shower. In need of fabric, she purposely tears her pants, letting the camera capture bare legs yet again. When Alex gifts her with bags of new clothes, the only item Julia pulls out to check is a pair of panties. She then cycles through a carousel of cleavage-revealing cocktail dresses. And who wouldn’t want to willingly wear a satin negligee to sleep while held hostage by a murderous sociopath?
The camera continuously frames Monroe with conspicuous objectification, whether it’s down her blouse from Tau’s POV or following her from behind as she crawls on all fours through a ventilation duct. This is to say nothing of how many times Julia ends up tied up, forcibly restrained, or repeatedly thrown prone to the ground for Alex to stand over her in a menacingly misogynist manner.
It’s far from unusual for a movie to present an attractive actress in a physically appealing manner. Yet “Tau” ogles Maika Monroe so obsessively that I wouldn’t be surprised if her talent agent sued the production company for deliberate exploitation or misrepresentation of their project’s purpose.
“Tau” further extends Hollywood’s unbroken streak of trying and failing to make Ed Skrein a thing as the villainous version of “bland white guy.” Skrein’s nondescript antagonist couldn’t be more milquetoast if he tried, and he tries, outfitting his simplistic appearance with a plainness befitting his vacant personality.
Providing Tau’s voice, Gary Oldman sounds like he’s doing the most basic “I am a robot” staccato possible. It’s quite possible he decided to pick an entirely unchallenging persona as a laugh to see if anyone would dare call the Oscar winner out, or choose to automatically applaud his performance purely on the basis of him being Gary Oldman.
“Tau’s” lackluster enthusiasm for its own script translates into disinterest for the viewer. Small star power can only distract from wimpy CGI effects, TV movie production value, and intrigue inertia for so long. Anytime “Tau” does manage to wake up and engage, the movie only reminds that it gave up during the first act, mistakenly thinking it could get by on being a Maika Monroe male fantasy reel for the remainder.
Review Score: 30